Could Water Cremation Become the New American Way of Death?
A sustainable option for what to do with our remains is trickling into popular consciousness
At 9 p.m. on New Year’s Day, Samantha Sieber was in her pajamas and watching a movie with her kids when the first call about Desmond Tutu came in. “I answered my cell phone, and it was BBC World News, and they said, ‘we need somebody to explain what aquamation is on live TV in 30 minutes,’” she recalls.
The international press was responding to reports that Tutu—the anti-apartheid leader, Nobel laureate, and Anglican archbishop emeritus who called climate change “one of the greatest moral challenges of our time”—had requested alkaline hydrolysis, also known as aquamation or water cremation, as an eco-friendly final disposition for his body. So the vice president of research at Bio-Response Solutions, the world’s largest producer of alkaline hydrolysis machines for the disposition of human remains, sent the kids and dogs to the basement and settled in to explain what she does for a living.
During alkaline hydrolysis, a human body is sealed in a long, stainless-steel chamber, while a heated solution of 95 percent water and 5 percent sodium hydroxide passes over and around it. In low-temperature alkaline hydrolysis, the solution reaches a temperature just below boiling, the process is performed at atmospheric pressure, and the body is reduced over the course of 14 to 16 hours; in a higher-temperature version of the process where the mixture tops 300 degrees Fahrenheit and creates more pressure, the body is reduced in four to six hours. The process dissolves the bonds in the body’s tissues and eventually yields a sterile, liquid combination of amino acids, peptides, salts, sugars and soaps, which is disposed of down the drain at the alkaline hydrolysis facility. The body’s bones are then ground to a fine powder and returned to the deceased person’s survivors, just as the bones that remain after flame cremation are returned to families as ash.
Alkaline hydrolysis is rare today as a funeral practice for humans. Offered to the public for the first time just over a decade ago, it is now permitted and regulated in 26 U.S. states, and practiced primarily in North America, where it remains unfamiliar to most people who have lost a loved one or who are thinking about what could happen to their own bodies when they die. That said, early adopters like Tutu are raising awareness of its possibilities, and proponents are arguing that we’re long overdue for a sea change—“traditional” practices like embalming and cremation have been the standard in America for decades now.
The invention of alkaline hydrolysis
On December 25, 1888, U.S. Patent 394,982 was issued to Amos Herbert Hobson, an Englishman who had discovered that combining animal remains with an alkali, such as caustic potash, dissolved in water and then heating and stirring that combination frequently for eight to ten hours was an excellent way to “obtain gelatine, glue, and size” and to create fertilizer. Hobson’s method was a boon to farmers—and irrelevant to contemporary funeral directors, who tended to concern themselves with impeding rather than accelerating decay.
A century later, Albany Medical College colleagues Gordon I. Kaye and Peter B. Weber revisited Hobson’s technique to solve a somewhat-radioactive-rabbit dilemma. They posited that alkaline hydrolysis could process and aid in the safe disposal of animals used as research subjects—and when their investigations were successful, they applied for and received a patent in 1994. The inventors began building machines to perform their technique. They installed the first of those machines, known then as a tissue digester, at Albany Medical College in 1992, and they sold their first system for the processing of human remains donated for medical research to Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in 1995. As one might gather from the fact that they called it a tissue digester, Kaye and Weber’s innovation hadn’t yet figured into the work of funeral homes.
The Albany innovators sold and installed more than 75 of their alkaline hydrolysis machines over the course of the next decade; when their outfit folded in 2006, former president and CEO Joseph Wilson formed Bio-Response Solutions. Sandy Sullivan, who had headed the company’s subsidiary in Europe, formed Resomation Ltd. in Scotland the next year.
Funeral homes adopt water cremation for human remains
In 2010, Bio-Response Solutions took an order from an Ohio funeral director named Jeff Edwards. Edwards began offering alkaline hydrolysis services to his customers early in 2011, and that’s when the dam broke. Since then, Resomation Ltd. and Bio-Response Solutions have produced all of the machines built and operated for the disposition of human remains. In the U.S., that’s more than 60 machines so far, with a total of 86 expected to be in operation by the end of the year.
“[Edwards] really is the guy that tossed himself on the sacrificial fire, you know,” notes funeral director Morris Pearson, whose family business, Pearson’s Funeral Home, has provided alkaline hydrolysis in Oregon since 2013. “He was the first guy that wanted a machine and kind of talked Wilson into building that one and yeah, he’s the guy that’s been in the fire the longest.”
After Edwards had performed 19 processes, state regulators stopped issuing him permits for body disposal via alkaline hydrolysis. Edwards filed a lawsuit in March 2011, arguing that he should be able to continue his work because no laws prohibited it; a Columbus judge dismissed his suit a year later, ruling that the state was free to decide. As of 2022, funeral directors still aren’t permitted to dispose of human remains by alkaline hydrolysis in Ohio. Edwards’ funeral home still offers the method as an option, but they transport bodies to Missouri in order to do it.“I felt like a fish in a barrel [working with regulators], and I can’t even imagine what it was like to be completely shut down,” Pearson says.
Though research had demonstrated in the late ‘90s that the liquid effluent produced through alkaline hydrolysis was safe to introduce to municipal sewer systems—in fact, waste managers often found in practice that it was beneficial to their treatment processes, as it nourished the bacteria that breaks down sewage—it presented most local officials with an unprecedented practice to regulate. After obtaining the relevant permits and performing alkaline hydrolysis for two and a half months, Pearson was reinspected by the urban sanitation department and presented with an adjusted monthly sewer bill of $3,000 per month; after yet another round of tests, that expense came down to $300 to $400 per month, a sum he considers ridiculous to dispose of sterile material that has proven to be unremarkable. “Theoretically you could drink that effluent,” he notes. “I would never try it, but in theory there’s nothing that’s going to hurt you.”
The environmental benefits of aquamation
One of the appeals of alkaline hydrolysis is that it accelerates the way a corpse naturally disintegrates in the earth. “It’s a chemical reaction where, in certain conditions, water molecules dissociate and decompose,” Sieber explains. “In our system, we add the heat, we add the flow of water, and we add alkalinity, and the alkalinity really makes the water molecule split and move around to break down the material.”
That acceleration does natural decomposition one better in that, as Kaye and Weber discovered in the ‘90s, it’s an effective remediator for removing environmental pollutants. “It’s good at breaking down chemotherapy drugs and [any other] drugs that were in the body, and if people want to be embalmed it breaks down embalming chemicals,” Sieber explains. Americans bury an estimated 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde with their embalmed loved ones each year.
According to the Berkeley Planning Journal, “Every year in the United States, the chemicals and materials buried along with bodies in a conventional burial include approximately 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete.” Flame cremations in America, in turn, release an estimated annual 360,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as well as toxic materials like mercury. Alkaline hydrolysis consumes approximately 10 percent of the energy required to cremate a body in flame, its equipment runs on electricity rather than fossil fuels, and it emits no greenhouse gases.
Pearson, who has performed alkaline hydrolysis 1,700 times since 2013, and estimates that it accounts for 52 percent of his total business today, believes the technology’s comparatively light footprint will eventually earn it wide acceptance, despite the potential “ick factor” of a process that sends byproducts down the drain. “We’re going back to the building blocks of protein, and it’s going to create a byproduct that is healthy for the environment,” he notes. Initially, consumers “react emotionally and not intellectually. And if you get them to reason with it, most people understand that [alkaline hydrolysis is] a way cleaner and way better process [than flame cremation or casketed burial]. I mean, they just come to that conclusion on their own.”
Gaining acceptance as a funeral practice
Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America (CANA), has watched alkaline hydrolysis grow, in the last ten years, from a novelty offering to one legalized in half the states. She estimates that the disposition method currently represents less than a tenth of a percent of the nearly 2 million cremations occurring in the U.S., each year, or fewer than 2,000 dispositions in 2021, but is quick to put these figures into context. “It took a hundred years from the first [flame] cremation in 1876 for the cremation rate to hit 5 percent in the United States in 1972 and then less than 50 years to hit 50 percent cremation [in 2016],” she says. “I don’t know what portion of that cremation market alkaline hydrolysis will have, but it’s certainly growing faster than flame cremation did in popularity.”
Kemmis isn’t alone in comparing alkaline hydrolysis to flame cremation. Bio-Response Solutions and Resomation Ltd. have trademarked “aquamation” and “water cremation,” respectively, CANA expanded its definition of cremation to include alkaline hydrolysis in 2010, and all but two of the states that have passed regulatory legislation to date have expanded their definitions in the same way. That’s why it’s difficult to know precisely how many bodies are processed that way each year: alkaline hydrolysis dispositions are counted among cremation dispositions. Though the fuels, processes and byproducts of the treatments all differ, the remains that flame cremation and alkaline hydrolysis produce for funeral directors to return to their clients are, in fact, remarkably similar. Alkaline hydrolysis yields “calcium phosphate [bones] without any DNA or biological material remaining,” Kemmis says. “There would also be trace amounts of potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide depending on the alkali chemicals used.” Those bones—like the ones removed from a retort (a cremation chamber) after flame cremation—are usually then ground into a powder and returned in an urn.
Direct alkaline hydrolysis (meaning the remains are collected and processed without witnesses, then returned in a simple urn), like direct cremation, has the potential to be inexpensive—perhaps under $500. However, like all forms of disposition, “it’s going to be facilitated through a for-profit industry; that’s their business, they need to make a profit, so the expense and the labor is probably going to be passed on to the consumer,” notes Sarah Chavez, executive director of the Order of the Good Death, “a group of funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists exploring ways to prepare a death-phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” As noted in the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2021 Price List Survey, the median total cost of working with a funeral home in the U.S. includes a $2,300 non-declinable basic services fee that covers its operating expenses.
At White Rose Aqua Cremation in Escondido, California—the first funeral home in the state to offer alkaline hydrolysis as of February 2022—the team’s status guides their offerings. Customers can choose between alkaline hydrolysis and a green burial (which minimizes environmental impact and conserves natural resources by avoiding toxic chemicals, nonbiodegradable materials and the use of fossil fuels), but they don’t offer traditional services, burials or embalming. This spring and summer, “we’ve had [clients who practice] religions I didn’t expect,” says managing funeral director Stephanie Poirier. “We’ve definitely had Catholics, but perhaps just not as strict.” Though the Vatican has been silent on alkaline hydrolysis, some Catholics feel that disposing of effluent is disrespectful. “We’ve had Jewish families, who usually do more of a green burial; we’ve had them [choose] the water cremation.”
Some of those clients ask Poirier and her colleagues how they would like to be handled after death. Poirier’s family isn’t concentrated in a single part of the country, and she once imagined flame cremation for herself and her loved ones. Now? “Hands down, I’m choosing water,” she says. “In fact, two of my family members live in a state where it’s not available and I’ve already sort of looked into it: ‘okay, where’s the closest state it’s available, just in case, or would it make sense to fly them all the way out here?’”
While Chavez believes that flame cremation should be available as long as people want it and have a cultural or religious tie to that practice, it is clear to her that more and more people have become aware of the environmental toll of modern casketed burial and flame cremation. “They want their deaths to reflect the values that they have in life, which is this respect and reverence for the planet and nature and the generations of people who would come after them,” she observes. “And then you’ve got a lot of children of baby boomers starting to make decisions about funerals who are questioning the death practices of previous generations, and who don’t see the value of an $8,500 funeral that doesn’t hold meaning for them and that harms the environment on top of it.” Aquamation provides an eco-friendly alternative.
On July 12, alkaline hydrolysis regulations were signed into law in Hawaii by Governor David Ige. The development is especially exciting for the team at Aloha Mortuary, the only funeral home on Oahu owned by a native Hawaiian. For the first time in generations, native Hawaiians will be able to approximate traditional death rites.
“I am so passionate about pushing for water cremation in legislation, and am proud that it is now legal in Hawaii,” says owner Kawehi Correa. “For Native Hawaiians, this allows us to preserve the iwi [long bones]. To us, that is where the mana [power/essence] is, and what it is carried through. It represents how we value life and our purpose on this planet. I believe that this technology, water cremation, is the future.”